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Maryland searching for new ballot printing vendor for November elections after problems in primary

The Maryland Board of Elections is searching for a new ballot printing vendor ahead of the November election after numerous printing and mailing mistakes were reported during the June primary.

The request for proposals, released Wednesday, seeks a vendor willing to print ballots upon request from voters — complying with Gov. Larry Hogan’s order for a mostly in-person election — but also leaves the door open for a vote-by-mail election, requesting pricing to print ballots for all 4 million voters in the state.

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Maryland is preparing to hold a traditional election despite the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. The Republican governor issued his order last week, calling for all polling locations to be open statewide as well as early voting locations. Registered voters will be mailed an application for an absentee ballot, but ballots will not be mailed to every voter.

The format is a departure from the mostly mail-in election Hogan ordered for the June primary in an effort to limit the transmission of the coronavirus. The pandemic has killed more than 3,000 Marylanders since the spring, and new cases have been increasing in the past week — 756 new cases were reported Wednesday, the biggest single day increase since early June.

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Ballots were mailed to all active eligible voters across the state ahead of the June primary, and the majority of voters made use of them. About 97% of voters returned their ballots via mail or placed them in drop boxes spread throughout the state.

But there were problems with the ballot printing and mailing process. Ballots destined for Baltimore City arrived fewer than two weeks before the primary. State election officials blamed Maryland’s ballot printing vendor SeaChange for the delay, saying the company twice lied to election officials about the ballots being mailed. SeaChange refuted that statement, arguing the ballots were late because Maryland election officials provided voter lists days later than expected.

Tens of thousands of voters in Prince George’s County received instructions with their ballots in only Spanish, an error also blamed on SeaChange. The company mailed English language instructions separately to affected voters.

A printing error wasn’t discovered until election night on ballots in Baltimore’s District 1. The error caused the ballots to misalign with ballot scanners and produce inaccurate returns. State officials again said SeaChange was responsible for the error, which required thousands of ballots to be manually copied in order to fix.

Nick Cavey, a spokesman for the state Department of General Services, said the state’s $12 million contract with SeaChange, which was due to continue through the end of the year, remains active.

The new ballot printing contract must be in place by Aug. 17 in order to have ballots printed in time for the election, according to the state’s request for proposals. The deal will expire at the end of November.

Only 64,362 absentee ballots for the November election had been requested statewide thus far, according to bid materials provided by the state. The package notes many more are expected to be requested “amidst the continuing health crisis.”

The documents leave open the possibility of widespread voting by mail.

“If there is a change to how the November 3 general election is conducted (i.e., if the election will be primarily a vote-by-mail election), ballots will need to be mailed to all registered and eligible voters in Maryland,” the documents state.

Hogan’s decision to hold an in-person election has been widely criticized by Democratic lawmakers and voting rights advocates who argue the plan is a health hazard and an impediment to voting. The governor’s decision also strayed from guidance he received from the State Board of Elections, which divided on what election format to recommend to Hogan.

Board members weighed options including mailing ballots to all voters, a preference of Democratic members, or sending absentee ballot applications, an option preferred by Republicans, but the five-member body was united in saying it could not execute a “traditional” election with each of the state’s approximately 2,000 precincts open.

During a Baltimore City Council committee meeting Wednesday, State Elections Administrator Linda Lamone said she expects the traditional election format to be costly due to logistics, printing and the need for an education campaign to explain the system to voters. Officials expect absentee ballot applications alone to cost several million dollars, she said.

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